Saturday 19 November 2011

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Matthew Parris behind the paywall in the Times makes a good point which I have read him make several times over the years about how one act can decided a government's fate. Leaving the ERM did for Major,the Winter of Discontent for Callaghan, Falklands War made Mrs. Thatcher. Brown was tumbled as a ditherer when he did not go to the country in 2007. His Gestalt analogy reminded me of what John Biffen said about fall of Mrs. T.: “You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B? Well, it was like that. Someone pressed a button, and all the connections lit up.”'

Groan now as I return yet again to Gestalt psychology, a theory whose best everyday illustration is provided by the children’s game of joining up the dots. From the philosopher David Hume onwards, thinkers and psychologists have noted the human brain’s predilection for finding — in apparently random or even contradictory data — pattern, form and explanation; a predilection for reading a sharper picture from a scatter of data than the scatter may seem to insist.
Political news is composed of such a scatter. Are we to draw a lion or a crab in that night-sky miscellany of points of light? We journalists want to make stories out of news points as astrologers make zodiac signs out of stars. So do politicians. So do you. Humans want to interpret. We’ll link things, brush aside the contrary evidence, invest significance in what confirms our pattern, ignore the rest. Sometimes there really are trends, overarching themes, underlying tides; and sometimes the construction is fanciful. And we do this not only with politics and economics, but with personality as well.
With Cameron & Co (for some of this applies to Mr Osborne too) there are some dots we’ve joined together already. Let me throw a word cloud at you that’s already suggestive of part of a possible picture. Breezy, smooth, imperious, confidence, command, sleek, superior, genial, unflappable, cool, relaxed, calm. These (many would say) are kingly qualities: the attributes of a natural leader.
But now let me throw another word cloud at you: vague, waffly, dismissive, windy, inactive, unclear, “don’t know what he stands for”, equivocal, bland, blank-seeming: some of these are potentially weakness words, others more suggestive of genuine bafflement as to a leader’s intentions. All (like the kingly attributes) may be read from the existing data by those who wish to do so.
Joining together these dots in the firmament, I suggest, two quite contrasting constellations can be drawn. One is of a prince, the other of what Shakespeare would call a pantaloon. Aloof because commanding, or aloof because out of touch? Calm or just paralysed? Low-key or just lazy? Unhurried or just directionless? Unforthcoming because quietly confident, or unforthcoming because clueless? Unflustered or just dilatory? Which picture are Britain and its news media going to lock into place? On which picture will we close the book or begin the movie?
It may happen quite soon. We’re teetering. People await a nudge, one way or the other. The coalition’s leadership urgently needs to signal something strong and something big.

No comments:

Post a Comment